New report finds stark inequalities in post-16 education outcomes

  • 21st February 2024

UK achievements differ widely, according to Education Policy Institute (EPI) findings, with Welsh school leavers most likely to have poor outcomes

The research identifies differences in education and training policy across the four devolved nations

A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Oxford University Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) has revealed major differences in the provision of post-16 education and training (E&T) across the UK nations and exposed stark inequalities in outcomes for young learners.

The report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, identifies differences in E&T policy across the four devolved nations; shows how these differences impact pathways and choices for young learners; and analyses how these differences are reflected in learner outcomes and inequalities.

Key findings:

  • There has been a very high level of policy churn experienced within UK E&T and this has been detrimental. The near-constant policy churn harms the morale of staff and stakeholders, as well as negatively shaping the aspirations of young people and their perceptions of E&T pathways
  • There has been significant and growing divergence in education and training policy across the four nations, particularly since devolution in 1999. Analysis of policy documents showed divergence in five key areas

–  Understandings of the purpose of E&T

– Approaches to co-ordinating E&T

– Approaches to funding

– The relationship between further education and higher education

– The role of employers and qualifications

  • Wales has the highest share of pupils ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET). Nearly 11% of young people aged 16-18 in Wales were classified as NEET in 2022-23, compared with 8% in England, 9% in Scotland and 5% in Northern Ireland
  • Education and labour market outcomes are also worse for working-class young people in Wales. Young people in Wales from working-class backgrounds were the least likely to hold A-level equivalent qualifications (56% in Wales, compared with 60-65% for working class young people in the rest of the UK). And young people from working-class backgrounds in Wales were also the least likely to be in employment (71%) when compared with the rest of the UK (74-78%)
  • Fewer apprenticeships are taken by young people in England and Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, only around 20% of apprenticeships are taken by 16–18-year-olds while 16-18/19 year olds make up a larger share of total apprenticeships in Scotland (37%) and Northern Ireland (52%)
  • Young people are much more likely to attend schools rather than colleges in Scotland and Northern Ireland. About 79 per cent of young people aged 16–17-year-olds were in schools in Scotland and around 60 per cent in Northern Ireland. These figures were much lower in England (45 per cent) and Wales (35 per cent), with young people more likely to go to colleges
  • Higher Education participation among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds is highest in England. In England, Wales and Scotland there has been an increasing share of higher education enrolments from students from the most deprived areas:

– In England about 20% of 18 year olds in the most-deprived areas attend higher education

– The rate is around 15-16% in Scotland and Wales

– Over the last decade the figure for Northern Ireland has remained at around 13%

  • Across all four nations, female school leavers are more likely to progress to higher education

– In England, about 42% of 18 year old girls went to university, compared with 30% of 18 year old boys in 2022-23

– In Northern Ireland, 47% of 18 year old girls went to university compared with 30% of 18 year old boys in 2022-23

– In Scotland, 48% of female school leavers went to university compared with 35% of male school leavers in 2021-22

– In Wales, about 36% of 18 year olds girls went to higher education, and only about 24% of 18 year old Welsh boys in 2022-23

Policy Recommendations

Based on the report’s findings, the researchers make a number of recommendations for policymakers on the overall direction of post-16 education and training systems across the four nations:

  • More-active and urgent action is required in Wales. Policymakers in Wales should be taking more-urgent and active steps to understand and improve post-16 educational outcomes and inequalities
  • A greater policy focus on inequalities is needed. Equipped with better data on inequalities between different groups of students, policymakers across the four nations should be better placed to address the inequalities in post-16 access and outcomes
  • A new stable policy settlement is needed. This will require political consensus within each nation on goals and ambitions that can be realised, well-funded institutions and structures, and a stable set of qualifications.
  • Data and statistics should be better, more comparable, and more focused on inequalities. The UK government and devolved administrations should make more effort to produce data in ways that allow for comparisons, particularly in terms of inequalities in access to different pathways and outcomes, through linked administrative data

Luke Sibieta, research fellow at the EPI, said of the report: “Our report exposes worrying inequalities in outcomes for students, as well as significant variation in the approaches taken to the provision of post-16 education and training across the four UK nations.

“We observe large inequalities across all four UK nations, but the problem is most acute in Wales, where we see the lowest shares of young people with different educational qualifications, the lowest participation in higher education, and larger numbers of young people not in education, employment, education, or training.

“This is a situation which requires urgent action by policymakers in Wales.”

Dr James Robson, director of SKOPE, added: “This interim report highlights the important ways in which education and training policy approaches are converging and diverging across the four nations and how these shifting policy logics shape learner experiences and outcomes.

“It shows excessive levels of policy churn across all the UK nations which has had a damaging impact on the stability of the education and training sector.

“Our analysis highlights a need for more cross-party policy work that unpacks the challenges of different approaches to coordinating education and training, both market and systems-based thinking, and deals proactively with growing inequalities in the UK.”

And Dr Emily Tanner, programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “By comparing education and training provision across the UK nations, this report highlights opportunities to better support young people to achieve positive education and employment outcomes.”

Keep Updated

Sign up to our weekly property newsletter to receive the latest news.